By Lucy Komisar
August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” is not about learning how to play the piano. It is about the powerful lesson an old ornately carved piano teaches about history and about the respect and honor one owes one’s forbears, especially when they suffered greatly to preserve the dignity they bequeathed to their children. It’s about slavery.
This is one of ten plays Wilson wrote over years, each highlighting a different decade in the lives of black people living in Pittsburgh. In this case, it’s 1936. Berniece (Danielle Brooks) lives with her uncle Doaker (Samuel L. Jackson) in his two-story A-frame house which he bought with pay from 27 years working for the railroad. Her husband died three years earlier, and she cleans people’ houses to support herself and her daughter. Brooks is strong and tough as the quintessential single mother defending herself and her child.
Her brother Boy Willie (John David Washington) arrives unexpectedly from Mississippi one middle-of-the-night with his friend Lymon (Ray Fisher), driving a truck full of watermelons they plan to sell. The undercurrent is Willie’s desire to sell the piano left to him and Berniece by their father so he can use the money to buy farmland in Mississippi and grow cotton and crops. Washington is brilliant as Willie, tough, rough, a voice filled with fury, anger, resentment, a man on fire. (Jackson played Boy Willie when the play opened in 1987.)
The land will be sold by a man named Sutter, whose father was killed when he fell into a well. People says he was pushed by the ghost of yellow dog. That goes to another story.
In the 19th century, a Robert Sutter was selling slaves. A local white bought a woman and her 9-year-old son in exchange for a piano. In a convoluted part of the story, they are bought back and they carve the family history on the piano.
Much latter Willie’s father steals the piano. He is imprisoned, escapes, and the yellow box car he is riding in is set afire. As if it were a curse, the ghost of yellow dog takes revenge and people die falling into wells.
Now Boy Willie wants to sell the piano to help pay for Sutter’s land. Berniece considers that an outrage. She is still angry that Willie got her husband Crawley to help move some wood that turned out not to be his and led to Crawley being shot and killed by the sheriff.
The other characters who fill out the plot are Lymon (Ray Fisher), slow speaking, not too bright, and Avery (understudy Charles Browning the night I saw it), a preacher who in a day job runs an elevator in an office building and recounts a dream of three hobos who chose him to preach the word of God. There’s an interesting moment where Berniece rejects Avery’s proposal: “You’re trying to tell me I can’t be nothing without a man.” Both Fisher and Browning are fine as their types.
Wining Boy (Michael Potts), Doaker’s brother, is a down-on-his-luck gambler and piano player whose best memories are of the lady he was not smart enough to keep. Potts is a very fine boogie pianist and singer. He does terrific stomping songs from the infamous Mississippi Parchman prison.
Director LaTanya Richardson Jackson, who is married to Samuel L Jackson, keeps the energy level and emotions high.
The story is full of violence, mostly perpetrated by and occasionally visited on whites. You feel on edge. But then you realize this is about more than specific acts of violence but about the trauma of the generations, from slavery to abuse of free blacks to the anger threatening a family.
“The Piano Lesson.” Written by August Wilson. Directed by LaTanya Richardson Jackson. Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, New York City. Runtime 2:20. Opened Oct 13, 2022, closes Jan 29, 2023.